BUT I RECEIVED MERCY
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Some years ago when I was working in an office, I had a co-worker who was Muslim. He was quite religious and taught at a local mosque. I was in seminary at the time and as we were getting to know one another, we would talk about faith. He would ask me, for example, if we believed in the prophets and we found common ground there. They were interesting discussions for sure. After a few weeks, Christmas was coming up, and I knew that at that point there was going to be a major fork in the road, as one of Christianity’s big (probably the biggest) distinctives when it comes to the other big monotheistic faiths is the divinity of Christ and all that entails. We continued talking about life and faith, of course. One day my friend said to me “I heard that Jesus never directly claimed to be the son of God.” I was ok with having this discussion but it dismayed me somewhat. I felt that my friend had read something like “How to engage with Christians” and what to argue. What to refute.
I’m not against refutation per se, but for me, it wasn’t about trying to argue anyone down. I recognized that my friend was not going to agree with everything I believed at that point and vice versa. What was of more interest to me was in finding out (and sharing) what faith had done in our lives. How our faith had changed us. What our faith meant to us on a Tuesday afternoon, as I like to say.
What I’m talking about is the value of what we’ve traditionally called our testimony. Our faith story, or our faith biography. Paul well realized the value of one’s own story. We talked last week about how he is writing to his right-hand man, Timothy, toward the end of Paul’s life. Paul wants to make sure that the tradition that has been handed down to him will continue on Timothy’s life and the life of the churches in Ephesus which Timothy oversees. Paul states his purpose plainly in 3:14-15. The church was under some attack from within. There were teachers who taught that one had to lead an ascetic life. Others taught that there was some hidden knowledge which they had attained which was vital for salvation, for deliverance. Others engaged in endless speculation. Others sought honour or fame or fortune (or all three) for themselves. Last week we talked about what it means to live in a household of faith.
This week we’re reminded by Paul on what it behooves us to dwell on as we live in this household of faith. Grace. God’s unmerited love. God’s unmerited favour. God’s unmerited being “for us”. Let us look at these words written so long ago and hear what God has to say to our hearts this morning.
At the beginning of most of Paul’s letters to churches, he gives thanks. “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” “In our prayers for you, we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” Wonderful! In this personal letter to Timothy, Paul directs his thanks toward Christ. “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me…”
This whole thing – depends on Christ. This is easy to say and perhaps we might think it’s easy to grasp. But do we? Can we ever? Do we act like we do? You’ve maybe heard the maxim “Work as if everything depended on you and pray as if everything depended on God.” I don’t know that we can separate work and prayer so easily, but there’s some wisdom there. Do everything as if everything depended on God. The Lord Jesus Christ has strengthened Paul. In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ has enabled Paul. Enables Paul. We’re talking about self-care for the church throughout these weeks. Our foundation, our strength, our enablement, is Christ Jesus. For this Paul gives thanks. For this, we need to be giving thanks. It might seem that this is a bit of a digression when you read through the letter. It’s not. It’s more like a praise break. A time to stop and give thanks and praise to God for God’s grace.
Christ Jesus our Lord has strengthened me. Christ Jesus our Lord is my enablement. Paul has just written about the glorious gospel of the blessed God. The glorious good news. The life and death and resurrection and ascension and expected return of our living Christ. Our living Lord. We say “Continuing Christ’s Work in the World” here, and it behooves us to stop and praise and give thanks to the one whose work it is, the one who enables the work.
The one who trusts us. This is really an amazing thing when you stop and think about it. I said that Paul wrote earlier about the glorious gospel of the blessed God. That verse ends like this – “which he entrusted to me.” (1:11) Paul takes up the same idea here in v 12 – “because he judged me faithful”. In other words, because God judged me trustworthy. God has entrusted us with this work. God had entrusted us to make known the glorious good news of the blessed God. How does this make us feel? We often talk about believing in God, don’t we? Quite rightly too. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Yes. The thing is, long before we ever believed in God, God believed in us. God trusted us. God trusts us.
How could we ever think we could do any of this on our own? How could we act like we could ever do any of this on our own?
Especially when you think of how far God has brought us. Think of our own stories. Paul had quite a story. “Even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence.” A persecutor of the Church. A man who was breathing threats and violence when he met the risen Christ on that road to Damascus. Paul’s “see the light” moment. A day which changed him irrevocably. A man who went from wanting to kill people who called Christ “Lord” to a man whose mission in life became to know Christ and to make Christ known.
But I received mercy. There is nothing from which Christ cannot bring us back. A friend of mine doesn’t feel that he can come to church because he’s not good enough. The whole reason we’re here is because we’re not good enough. The whole reason we’re here is because we need something outside ourselves. It’s how we were made. The invitation that we extend is to find that “thing that we need” in Christ. Look what it did for Paul. Think of what Christ has done in you. “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” I received mercy. We say each time we come to this table “Come not because any righteousness of your own gives you the right to come but because you need mercy and help.”
This has been Paul’s experience. I have to say too don’t feel badly if your coming to Christ has not been a road-to-Damascus type of experience. Don’t feel badly because you’ve heard stories from people who committed crimes or have been saved from addictions and other really dire and tragic circumstances. I heard a speaker at one of our CBOQ retreats make this same entreaty to a group of young people one weekend. She said something like “Don’t feel badly if you’ve grown up in a Christian home and have never really strayed or felt far from God or God’s will for your life. Be thankful for that.” Look at the things in your life that you know did not come from you – thoughts, attitudes, the desire to grow into the image of Christ. Remember these things and thank God for doing them in your life. I often say that if you told me 12 years ago I would be a pastor and doing things like preaching and leading Bible study I would have said “Wow but not unheard of.” If you told me that part of my ministry would be serving the homeless I would have said: “That’s crazy.” God put that in my heart, it didn’t come from me.
We’re talking about the wonder of grace. May it always be something we wonder at. “… and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” The word here for overflowed is exceedingly abundant. It’s like hyper-abundant. Super-abundant. This is a big word for the kids these days. Everything is super. I’m not super-excited about… Of course, now that I’ve said that it will likely cease being a thing for the kids. God’s super-abundant grace. God’s grace overflowed for me with the faith and the love that are in Christ Jesus. It does us well to sit with this. To spend time with this wonderful truth. Everything flowed from grace for Paul. Someone has said that “Religion is grace, ethics is gratitude.” Grace is at the heart of it all and our invitation is to receive this super-abundant grace with gratitude and let this be the thing that directs our lives. All coming from the faith and the love that are in Christ Jesus. Resulting in a love for God, a love for humanity, a love for creation that can only come from God.
Which is what the world needs so sorely. Doesn’t it? We talked about the meantime in the book of Habakkuk. Times are indeed mean. I was listening to a US political commentator and author named Sally Kohn recently. She has written a book called “The Opposite of Hate.” She talked about doing research that shows that humans are hard-wired to hate. We are hard-wired to think in terms of us versus them, to treat “the other” as less than while we treat members of our own group with positive associations. You hear talk about “the otherization” of our enemies. It’s natural. We say that this is due to our fallenness. It’s not the way things were meant to be. She talked about the importance of overcoming this. She put it like this “It’s important to understand how we are fundamentally, deeply connected as human beings, and that others have the same right to grace, kindness, compassion, and humanity that we believe ourselves and our kind deserve too.”
These are the conversations that people are going on. That’s wonderful. How do we come to such a conclusion – that we are fundamentally connected? For the follower of Christ, Paul tells us. Remember grace. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance…” This is equivalent to Jesus’ “Amen amen I say to you.” When you see it, pay attention to what comes next, it’s going to be particularly significant. Here it is – “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” What is our commonality? That we are all in need of grace. That Christ died for each and every one of us. For everyone, you see as you go about your day. That Christ came to save sinners. Not the other. Us. All of us. It means that our mission as a church is never about ourselves. Sure we’re talking about self-care of the church here. It’s not simply that we can be healthy. It’s so that we can be taking this message of grace out from here. In the ways, we do it together (institutionally). In the ways, we do it as individuals. Remembering that when it comes to people who needed God, who need God, I am the foremost.
It’s not to beat ourselves up. It’s not about self-abnegation or self-effacement. It’s about recognizing our need for God’s wondrous grace. It’s to get down on our knees like the publican in Jesus’ story and cry out “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” and give thanks that in Christ we have been made the righteousness of God. A remedy for self-righteousness as well as self-sufficiency.
In this way, God made Paul an example of God’s mercy, of God’s patience. In the same way, we are to be examples, lights, salt, signposts to life eternal – and not just life eternal as in the afterlife but literally “without beginning and without end” – life the way that we are created to live it in harmony with our loving creator. I’ve said that the way you know love is the way you’ll show love. The same thing can be said of grace. The way you know grace is the way you will show grace.
May this be something that causes wonderment for us friends. What else is left to do at this point but praise; but sing. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. It’s called a doxology. A formula of praise. A song. Some things are beyond mere words. We give thanks to God for music. Paul will burst into another song in chapter 3 where he talks about the great mystery of our religion, not in a whodunit way but in a God’s superabundant grace is an unfathomable way:
“He was revealed in flesh,/vindicated in spirit,/seen by angels,/proclaimed among the Gentiles,/believed in throughout the world,/taken up in glory.” (3:16)
Grace is a song friends. Let us respond together in song.